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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 14/03/2004 - 15:32

In reply to by Daniel_Randall

'Real Political Time' and 'Third Camp Time': a reply to Daniel Randall

Alan Johnson

Daniel, thanks for your kind comments. Let me try and set out more of my thinking, specifically about this notion of the 'third camp'.

If we ask the question 'How can the third camp be developed?' we find there are two ways of answering that question, the propagandistic and the political, giving us two kinds of 'third camp' position between which we have to make a choice.

The propagandistic third camper imagines the 'third camp' as a platonic point of eqi-distance between two equally reactionary forces and wants to make abstract propaganda for a 'third camp', opposing both reactionary camps on principle, absolutely, and in every circumstance. This kind of third camper lives in 'third camp time', a time of perpetual futurity when present day actualities are denied, bracketed, or obscured in favour of the future vision. No tough political choices ever have to be made. This kind of third camper condemns each side and calls for democracy and socialism. At its best this kind of third campism holds open a space for a future socialist alternative. But the price is high: an abstract propagandism, an inability to relate our programme to present-day realities, the loss of our capacity to act as a fructifying political lever. At its very worst this sort of third camper will say that even if one could know in advance that 800,000 would be murdered in Rwanda one would nonetheless oppose the dispatch of 2000 US Marines to stop it because that would be 'imperialism' and we stand for 'the third camp'. As one third camper put it to me - this a Damascene moment in my own rethinking - the 800,000 deaths would be a 'price worth paying' for the sake of preserving the independence of the third camp socialists who work for the future goal. I now think of this kind of thing as living in 'third camp time' and I don't want anything to do with it anymore.

The political third camper accept that being for the 'third camp' means doing the difficult and messy work of building an alliance of democratic and progressive political forces out of a situation of extreme weakness. This dictates we attend urgently to what we might call 'real political time' and develop our political programme in its light. This kind of third camper wants to be a political lever not an abstract propagandist.

I think the AWL is trying hard to hold to both positions and I think that is, ultimately, incoherent. I think the two views co-exist uneasily in your own argument, Daniel. You say you are for (a) the development of the working class resistance. In the very next line you say you are for (b) troops out now. But ask yourself what - in real political time not the permanent futurity of 'third camp time' - would be the result of the troops pulling out now? It would be the destruction of the very working class resistance you seek.

The abstract propagandist third camper - whether conscious of it or not - is playing a little game here. It could be called the 'My Responsibility / Not My Responsibility' game. Looking over here, at the presence of the coalition forces, the propagandistic third camper says 'our responsibility is to oppose imperialism! Troops out now! For the Third Camp!' But looking over there, at the consequences of a troop withdrawal they say 'well, that's not my responsibility, I wanted a third camp of democracy and socialism not an inferno of exploitation for the working class'. I think Shachtman in 1951 knew there was something wrong with that game. I think he was right, though he undoubtedly lost his way later.

Political third campers want to build a third camp in real political time and thus, in the concrete circumstances we find in Iraq. That means using the breathing space offered by the coalition occupation, for now, to build up the progressive political forces that would constitute a 'third camp'. In fact that is what the AWL actually does, making links with trade unionists, socialist organisations, women's groups in Iraq and forging a network of solidarity around them. The 'troops out now' position is just a hangover from the old position. Marching with the Stop the War Coalition is more to do with reaching its mass constituency with a different message than agreeing with the message of the march.

Once you make yourself see things in real political time, Daniel, your arguments lose their force. For instance, you doubt that the coalition forces are any kind of bulwark against the reactionary 'resistance'. But you know they are. So the interest in your expressed doubt lies more what it says about the propagandistic third camp view. It says it can only hold itself together by denying reality. You are living in the futurity of 'third camp time' where a 'workers self-defence squad' will drive the Saddamists and al-Queda out of Tikrit. Well, speed the day, but to reach that future time I have to act strategically, as a political third camper, in real political time, where the 4th Infantry Division is doing the job. I don't feel the need to celebrate it, or invest the 4th Infantry Division with virtues it does not possess, or imagine that it is doing the job because it wants to achieve socialism in Iraq. I am not an idiot. But to just swish that awkward fact away with talk of 'troops out now' and 'workers defence squads'...well, I'm sorry, I just can't do it anymore. Daniel, imagine yourself to be a socialist living in Tikrit and answer me a question. How would 'troops out now' help build the third camp? If your answer is 'it would not, but we have to say that because we are third camp socialists' then stop and think long and hard about that answer. If your programme is an obstacle to acting responsibly in the struggle, from connecting up where we are with where we want to get to, an obstacle to working for socialism (as opposed to negative anti-imperialism) then so much the worse for your programme. Change it. Refine it. Move on.

But you don't really believe the coalition is not a bulwark, do you? You know that millions of people in Iraq are saying the opposite, daily, so you shift tack to 'how can we leave the task of fighting terroristic reactionaries to an imperialist occupying power?' Notice that this move of yours shifts the goalposts and allows you to bracket the actual question faced on the ground by people in Tikrit, which is 'who WILL fight those terroristic reactionaries?' You have allowed your 'workers defense squads' of the future to substitute for a serious answer for the present. By living in 'third camp time' you find you can't think in real political time. Living in the permanent futurity of 'third camp time' allows for all sorts of evasions of that kind. I don't think the political third camper living in Tikrit (and our programme is for them not for our souls or to make life easier inside the big 'anti-war' movement demos) has a choice but to 'leave the task' to the 4th Infantry Division for now, even as she works for a future in which the task can be taken on other, 'third camp', forces. We are working for the construction and eventual victory of the third camp not the coalition. But if we decide to live in 'real political time' not 'third camp time' we have do that work in a particular way, connecting up the brute facts about the present role of the coalition, the present strength of our forces, and our own future goals. That present is the only terrain on which we fight to carve a better future, as opposed to merely making abstract propaganda for one.

The propagandist third camp position pushed you to other arguments I don't think you actually support. You say the coalition forces and the 'resistance' are just 'two poles of the same terrorism'? So you are neutral between the two. You could not care whether the coalition defeats the resistance or the resistance defeats the coalition. Really? The 300,000 dead, the mass graves, the totalitarian character of the regime, and you just could not care whether it all returns via the defeat of those forces that - whatever their wider 'project' which you are still free to oppose, you know - have provided a political space in which you have been building a progressive, secular, democratic solidarity network with the people of Iraq? Well, here is what I think. I just don't think that you believe a word of that. I think you feel obliged by the logic of a propagandistic third camp position to say such things. I think you know they are silly. I don't think you need to say such things. I think there is another - political - way to be for the 'third camp'.

Do I trust the coalition? No, of course not. The task of the third camp is to fight in and against the coalition umbrella for a secular democratic Iraq. Note: 'fight'! Note: 'and against'! Shachtman in 1951 was for fighting. You seem to think I am for sitting back and trusting the coalition will deliver democracy. No! But I am for fighting for democracy in the breathing space provided by the coalition - and immediately that means recognising that political space exists and that 'troops out now' would close it - by building the size, independence, power, finances, and networks of the progressive democratic opposition. I want a future (yes, the political third camper living in 'real political time' can also talk in the future tense) when that opposition can cast off not only the Baath and al-Queda but also the control exerted by the coalition. But politics is always a strategic activity, always conducted in real political time. First this, so we can move on to, that.

If 'third camp socialism' is to move on it must decide to live in 'real political time' and not the perpetual futurity of what I have here called 'third camp time'. That does not mean giving up on our goals. But it might mean we move towards our goals and not someone else's. And that would be a start.

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